Outliers: Facebook Launch Party

Outliers

Progress has often been measured by the advancement of technology and sciences. that which aides humanity’s ability to survive. But humanity itself has remained the constant. 

Until now.

They are anomalies. The gifted and the pariahs, the blessed and the cursed. Capable of reading minds, transforming their bodies or controlling forms of energy. They are Outliers. And as their numbers explode, modern civilization will be put to the crucible against the unexpectedly transhuman.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to invite you all to the free release launch party for the Outliers Saga. We’re giving away an e-chapbook, containing four short stories, character profiles and flash fiction, with artwork by the amazing Manuel Mesones.

This is a Facebook event, not a physical one, meaning there’s no need to show up anywhere. And be sure to follow Outliers on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Stranger Things Season 1 Review

Stranger thingsUntil indicated, this review is spoiler free. If you’ve seen it, skip below for analysis.

No one saw it coming. No one. Like an alien invasion or a paranormal event, Stranger Things is a bolt of 80’s goodness out of the blue.

On a cold night in November of 1983, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears in his hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As the search gradually begins, spearheaded by the haunted Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) has strange revelations as to the whereabouts of her missing son. Her antics grate and worry her eldest child Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who starts his own investigation, eventually crossing paths with Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and plain crossing her new boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery).

Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas, Dustin and Nancy’s brother Mike (Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and Finn Wolfhard respectively) decide to buck the rules and search for their missing chum despite the danger. Instead they find a strange girl in the worlds named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and are pulled into a far greater mystery that is part man-made, and part not…

There are absolutely no limits to the 80’s references in the show. Showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer gently borrowed ideas and hints from a myriad of movies and shows, or even just used toys and games of the era. These ranged from hints of Aliens to Stand By Me, The Goonies, E.T.A Nightmare on Elm Street and It (although that was released in 1990), to impressions of Yoda. Yet despite the reliance on nostalgia the show stands on its own, entertaining whether or not the audience is familiar with these titles.

AlphabetThat last point raises a critical question about whether or not the show is suitable for younger children. The show’s heroes range from adults to teenagers to kids, pulling in audience from all age groups, giving appeal for the whole family. But although most of the violence happens off screen and the gore is subdued, some of the scarier elements risks nightmares for the youngest. This is especially true during the mesmerizing finale.

That said, Stranger Things is the engine of fan conversion. The perfect blend of science fiction and horror, carefully balanced between concerned and aware adults as well as a group of lovable children. No one is immune to the charm of Lucas, Mike and especially Dustin who all flip from their goofiness to concern just as real kids do. And although Stranger Things is a quintessential homage of the best of a decade, the show is a phenomenon no one can, or should, resist.

Analysis and spoilers follow from here on. 

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Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 Review

 

Voltron

For some reason, no one could nail a solid reboot of the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

There were attempts before, and my understanding is that they’ve been lackluster. Strange, because the original show adhered to a relatively simple premise; a group of space explorers for the Galaxy Alliance are captured by the Drule Empire and taken to Planet Doom. After escaping, they make their way to Planet Arus where Princess Allura helps them discover five legendary robotic lions. These assemble into Voltron, who defends the planet from King Zarkon.

The American version of the original series stuck to a formulaic approach. After the movie-long introduction of Voltron and the team, each episode resulted in the appearance of a huge robeast (robotic beast) who would then perish to Voltron’s sword. Occasionally the team would face a real problem, such as one of the team being injured or some espionage that prevented forming the eponymous hero. Other times actual changes to the plot would drive events, such as the introduction of Prince Lotor, or the transformation of Commander Yurak into a robeast followed shortly thereafter by his legitimate death.

But the original Voltron did have a huge impact on other media and pop culture in general. Gestalt combinations of robots were integrated into the Transformers series, and there’s no doubt where the concept of Power Rangers came from. And to this day, the phrase “And I’ll form the head!” can still invoke laughter from those in the know.

All of this is why Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s new series, Voltron: Legendary Defender, shocked and awed by possessing a forward-thinking story, subplots, great character development and solutions that don’t always revolve around slashing kaiju in half. And as if it being green-lit for season 2 wasn’t awesome enough, we’ll be getting it this year.

This review will avoid spoilers, but the same cannot be said of the links. Click with caution.

Voltron TeamThe show opens with the abduction of Shiro (a re-envisioned Sven) and his research team during first contact with the alien Galra Empire. A year later, Galaxy Garrison space cadets (in both rank and metaphor) Hunk, Pidge and Lance prove themselves a crew in need of cohesion.

But just as Pidge lets on that he knows more about the events of the universe than they’re being told, the trio go to investigate an incoming distress call. The emergency proves to be an escaped Shiro, who the Garrison is about to take in custody and quarantine. With the help of training washed out Keith the five escape the garrison forces. Combining their knowledge, they are eventually led to the hiding place of the blue lion who auto-pilots them to Planet Altea. There, a desperate Princess Allura and Coran instruct them in reassembling Voltron.

If this synopsis of the first episode sounds a little rushed, that’s because it is. The first is also the longest of the series; almost 70 minutes compared to the ten 23 minute episodes that follow. The pacing is relying on the viewers wanting to cut to the meat of series rather than worry about minor details, like how Princess Allura happens to speak the same language as the earthling team. Or the Galrans too for that.

GalraBut it’s the following episodes when the show really begins to shine. Unlike the original series, the Voltron force doesn’t stick around to play some ridiculously prolonged defensive campaign. The Castle of Lions is actually a modified spaceship that is grounded, and the team intend to embark on a perhaps decade-long guerrilla campaign to free the galaxy from Galran control.

And this is no small task. In the opening episode(s), it is revealed that the Galran empire is a huge sum of galactic space but has yet to come into regular contact with humanity. The showrunners actually treat the empire realistically too, with infrastructural concerns like refueling stations for their fleets, production and mining facilities— economic considerations light years ahead of what Defenders of the Universe ever pondered. The ten episodes barely scratched the surface and yet they’re off to a bang-up start.

But more than the “evil empire” trope, all of this is unexplored territory for a bunch of earthlings who have never been outside human-controlled space before. Although how they overcame language barriers isn’t explained, there is plenty of culture clash. Hunk learns the hard way what the Alteans consider food, Pidge questions their concept of time and there are many alien races out there to meet. And if culture is the “little stuff,” then there are bigger discoveries out there such as the colossal Balmera, which not only add to the depth of the universe but also serve as interest story elements in and of themselves.

HunkGoofiness seems to be the most defining characteristic of much of the cast. Compared to his Defender of the Universe bonhomme counterpart, Coran is almost over-the-top with ridiculousness. This is strange when mixed with his otherwise traditionalist views and position as the show’s lore-keeper. Much of the team is prone to rib-poking too, particularly at the expensive of good-natured Hunk. There’s a few times when the humor risks being ill-placed, especially in the first episode. But the rest of the series tempers itself to know when to crack a smile and when to hold off.

But unlike the original series, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery proved willing to build on both the heroes and villains, and found subtle ways to indicate a willingness to lose them as well. For the pilots, the two biggest changes have been Pidge and Shiro. The latter was given a great backstory with forward-moving motivation, while the former slowly unravels the mysteries of what happened to him during his abduction. Lance and Keith primarily provide rivalry and personalities this season, while Hunk becomes more personally involved in one mission the team undertakes. Even Voltron itself gets more of a backstory.

Then there are the villains. Except for a degree more litheness than the past, Space Witch Haggar is relatively untouched in role and menace. Her services to Emperor (a welcome promotion from “King”) Zarkon are the same; advising and creating new technologies and robeasts. For fear of spoilers, the changes to Zarkon himself will not be addressed. Still, these alterations exemplify the ethos of the show to rarely come out and say something. Rather, Voltron: Legendary Defender prefers to show the audience the pieces and allow the mystery to reveal itself on its own time in a rather organic manner.

But it’s Princess Allura who received the most revisions. The prior series cast her initially as something of a damsel in distress who eventually steps up to the plate to become a lion pilot. This time, she and Coran are in charge of the ship, and she takes a commander’s role to Shiro’s captaincy. She also reveals that Alteans are not space humans and, perhaps in the biggest piece of foreshadowing, suffers a personal loss half way through the series.

Voltron GangThis loss was of a cornerstone element of Defender of the Universe. While not really a “death,” this event may subtly indicate that DreamWorks is willingly to write permanent changes to the course of the plot. As Sven (Shiro) was killed early int he original Japanese series, it is not impossible that other deaths may follow. Time will tell how much everyone’s favorite robot show has matured.

Whether you’re a fan of 80’s nostalgia, good anime or just something family friendly, check out Voltron: Legendary Defender before the start of the second season later this year.

Entertainment in July

Stranger ThingsRejoice. This entry is spoiler free.

On Sunday I screamed at my friends, “You have to watch Stranger ThingsRight now!”

And they did. Alec added it to the to-watch list. Andrew binged it to completion on Friday while Manuel and his wife became so absorbed, he put down working a new cover for us to stream the entire first season.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, shame on yo— I mean, the show takes place in sleepy Hawkins, Indiana in November, 1983. A stormy night preludes the disappearance of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), setting the entire town on edge. Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhand, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo respectively) break the town’s emergency curfew to search for their abducted friend, and happen across a strange girl (Millie Bobby Brown).

Meanwhile the missing boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles to accept her boy’s loss while Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) slowly becomes a part of the mystery herself. Toss in a police sheriff (David Harbour) with a tragic past and a mix-match of elements from The X Files and you have a phenomenal homage to all the great things from the 80’s; E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarman and a whole slew of Stephen King’s best.

Speaking of the 80’s, I’ve finally figured out what is bugging me about Halt and Catch Fire. While the second season was generally good, the problem was that it spent too much time trying to wow us with “predictions of the future.” The first season focused on a single, great idea with the invention of the laptop, with hints of query-based operating systems. But the second season just went crazy with the fortunetelling; T1 cable lines, how chat rooms were the secret to America On-Line’s success, computer security, online gaming, time-sharing data processing, made-to-order custom built PCs and first-person shooters (aka Doom).

By the end of it, the audience is left with the impression that basically all the major growth in the computer industry was foreseen by just four people who all just happened to be in Texas. Halt and Catch Fire was green lit for a third season, but I’m not certain my inability to believe what I’m seeing is going to keep me glued to the screen. 

Admittedly, my reading has somewhat slowed because of a newfound love of podcasts. Or rather, that of Jason Weiser’s Myths and Legends. Podcasts solve my problem of not getting enough fresh, non or semi-fictional material, allowing me to work out or just walk to my job while absorb new tales. Unfortunately, sometimes the episodes run over the time it takes me to get to the metro. Since I’d rather wrap up the episode, this then cuts into my reading.

Watership DownBut I am closing in on the final chapters of Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s strange how folks gape in awe when tell them I haven’t partaken in reading it before. Like there’s no respect for there being hundreds of classic books to read, and to expect even a prolific reader to have covered them all is ridiculous.

A brief synopsis goes that two rabbits, Hazel and his brother Fiver, tire of life in their warren where they are not exactly high ranking. Upon a prophetic vision from Fiver, Hazel gathers a crew to try and split off from their home without the approval of their elders. Escaping with a dozen bucks, they travel into a hostile world, facing unusual dangers and troubles until settling at a place christened Watership Down. Acknowledging that they have no does to perpetuate their warren, Hazel and company attempt to rectify the situation. This runs afoul another, more militant warren whose glory-seeking leader brokers no dissension.

Watership Down isn’t exactly something you can spoil; if you try not to explain the plot, you’re not left with much to describe it with. But it’s not about the suspense of “what happens next” but rather the journey itself, complete with cunning and tricks and the lore of El-ahrairah, a mythological trickster hero and the closest thing to lapine-religion.

Finally in games this week, I downloaded Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Firmly understanding that it’s basically the tech-demo/prequel to The Phantom Pain, I’ve nevertheless invested time and effort mastering it, trying to earn the 100% completion rate before purchasing the main game. So far, I’m over 40%, so definitely doing alright.

Ground ZeroesMy record of playing the Metal Gear series is spotty. Peacewalker and MGS4 remain to be played. But I own Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, the latter of which feels underrated as many fans did not like the main character being someone other than Snake himself.

And then my favorite, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

The game was strange as the third of any series is rarely the best and, as if not bizarre enough, it was also a prequel. And I’m not alone in this, as many polls suggest that the third installment was other gamers’ favorite as well. It was just… so unexpected. Initially I almost snubbed the game, but instead found my expectations totally reversed. I became less interested in getting MGS4, believing the emotional power of the third game simply couldn’t… and perhaps shouldn’t, be topped.

I’ve made few secrets before how Metal Gear has been quite the inspiration for some of my writing in the past. While the gameplay remains action and stealth based, the plots have frequently proven to have very few genre limits. The term “super hero” is never used, but several characters have abilities and skills that seem nigh-super powered. The rules of politics, military and science fiction are often bent and occasionally broken.

And while the thought of nuclear deterrence is a unsettling subject matter, some of the antagonists’ schemes have proven even more nefarious, such as the Patriot’s attempts to control culture itself by “info-cleansing” the internet. Given that all modern politics revolves around controlling the narrative, this actually scares me more than nuclear weaponry.

 

A Trope to Twist, AKA the Rise of “Meta-Movies”

GoosebumpsThe weekend before last I enjoyed watching Goosebumps on Netflix. A blend of comedy with thriller-horror, the film was weirdly delighting and a fun surprise for someone whose only entry into the series was Say Cheese and Die.

The premise was unusual as well; high school student Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move to Madison, Delaware so his mother can take a new job. Initially with no friends of his own, he bonds with his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). But concern for his new friend leads Zach to investigate her father, whom is the reclusive (to say the least) writer R.L. Stine, portrayed by Jack Black. His reason for hiding from society? Stine’s original manuscripts are gateways to unleashing the monsters he wrote. And when Zach accidentally unleashes them, Madison pays the price for his mistake.

Goosebumps is another addition to the growing genre of “meta-movies,” mildly self-aware films that make use of unusual source material in a way that acknowledges cultivated clichés and tropes, yet integrates them with care. These films are not parodies like Meet the Spartans or the Scary Movie series, but rather they walk a fine line between taking themselves seriously and having fun. The Lego Movie is another such meta-movie, telling the majority of its story before acknowledging its characters are, in fact, toys. Also Wreck-It Ralph, which portrays its eclectic cast of video games characters more as “actors” on a stage of digital lights. These films accept that telling a dramatic tale with the toys and games would difficult, and their approach vastly differs from other product-franchise adaptions like Battleship and Transformers which take themselves seriously (although the latter had considerable source material to draw from).

But products aren’t the only source of meta-movies. Entire genres too can fall in this category, such as with The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than avoiding them, Drew Goddard’s movie dives into the clichés, embracing and wrapping them around a “second tier” plot twist that changes the dynamic from traditional horror to a pre-apocalyptic tale. And it works very well.

An important distinction however is that they do not totally breach the fourth wall, but may create avatars for the audience and make them somehow integral to the story. For The Lego Movie, it was the child played by Jadon Sand and The-Man-Upstairs, Will Ferrell’s live counterpart. Goosebumps had Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee), while The Cabin in the Woods relied on Bradley Whitford and his team of voyeurs.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph differs however. It has no audience-avatar character, but still acknowledges that it takes place within a world hidden in the hardware, using props rather than a person to construct the stage and uses many gaming references to “speak” to and for the audience.

So where did the ideas for all these movies come from? A good question.

Goosebumps likely borrowed from The Cabin in the Woods, which was likely written based on critical reaction to patterns in horror films as a whole. The Lego Movie likely took a cue from Toy Story (which used a few brand toys but was mostly archetypal). Wreck-It Ralph could trace its origins to the Canadian animated show Reboot which in turn may have taken a hint from 1982’s Tron— all of whom take place within the hardware world.

These earlier films are not “meta-movies” but rather the forerunners, phenomenon that either immediately or in time altered pop culture as we know it. The ideological tree whose fruit gives us the very tropes to twist.

Still, the cats out of the bag and the pattern has emerged. Meta-movies are ultimately a kind of gimmick, a clever idea that will likely become more and more telegraphed until meriting retirement. But I’m not one to declare that any good idea should ever entirely be discarded. After audiences tire of them, the concept will probably be set aside until audiences forget they exist, before they make a resurgence. Just as Star Wars is the modern space opera and Indiana Jones is the archetype adventurer mixed from King Solomon’s Mines and similar but pulpier tales, no good idea goes unremembered for long.

Game of Thrones Season 6 Recap & Review

Spoilers are to follow. 

The reversal was stunning, to say the least. From the rough start to the incredible ending, the sixth season of Game of Thrones was the reward the show’s faithful have long awaited.

In order to ease reminders for readers, I’ll mostly be using links to the Game of Thrones wikia. However, a few links go to A Wiki of Ice and Fire which covers the books. Although the show has passed the timeline of the novels, there may still be spoilers that have yet be introduced on the screen. I will specifically warn the reader about such links.

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Cultural Sabbatical for June

It’s been a while. Writing projects have kept me and the team remarkably busy. I’m happy to announce that we’ve finished the first round of edits for our novella series. More on this later, perhaps even as soon as next week. But for now, a little of what I’ve found time to enjoy.

TMitHKBooks

As the fictional adventures continue, I have a tendency to rarely return to the same author within a year. This happens for many reasons; to prevent burnout, to keep my head filled with new ideas, and to rotate the geek-with-the-chic. Sometimes you get books that can blend those two things together, but this doesn’t usually happen until the novel transitions to the the screen, big or small.

But on that point, the “no author more than once a year” guideline was violated twice this year by Philip K. Dick, with The Man in the High Castle and my current read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is rapidly disappearing in my hand. The story is a blitz that is hard to put down, interesting in its own right though vastly different from its film adaption, Blade Runner.

PKD was, and pretty much still is, the “idea man” that made science fiction what it is today. While many such authors tend to focus on the more academic sciences, the beauty in Dick’s concepts are their psychological inspirations. His themes ooze and seep, capable of invading any genre no matter how timeless. It wasn’t so much about androids, but what androids tell us about us. It wasn’t the facts and dates of Nazi occupation of America, but rather how we live in such times, how we felt and why we do. PKD used his head to tell it from the heart.

On the subject of fast reads, I’m also rather impressed with the vanishing act performed with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I finished over last weekend. The book was the perfect mix of fantasy and fairy tale, tying its carefully woven mix of behind-the-scenes theological suggestions with the philosophies of its characters. It spoke with such depth that one’s life felt changed after reading.

American GodsThe final achievement on the literature front was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which I purchased before even knowing about the upcoming television series. The novel was my first book by Gaiman (outside of the movie Coraline and the graphic novel The Dream Hunters with Yoshitaka Amano), and I truly appreciated the effort he put into researching and cultivating the world’s mythologies and not just the most common, such as Greek and Norse. The overall story is fairly satisfying on its own, although there is a sense that there should have been more to the story at times.

Perhaps that’s something that Starz will soon rectify.

While a part of me is looking forward to the book’s television rendition (considering it stars Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle), there’s reason to be cautious. Especially since HBO attempted the script with three writers and just couldn’t get it down, eventually giving up. Still, although HBO generally employs good writers, the somewhat prematurely finished show The Leftovers would suggest that the channels struggles to engage its audiences in matters of theological consideration. Well, since we’re on that topic…

Television

On the live action front… I have a horrible confession to make ladies and gentlemen. I have never seen Orange is The New Black

“What?!” Some readers might be screaming. “The show is amazing! How could you not see it?”

For me, Orange is The New Black is kind of suffering from a form of TV debt. Simply put, right now there is actually too much great television these days. HBO and Showtime used to have the corner to themselves, then AMC came along and proved that ordinary cable can deliver, followed swiftly by the lineups at Netflix. Now, it seems every channel has at least one hit show of some kind. USA has Mr. Robot (of which I’ve seen season one). PBS has Downton Abbey (currently I’m on the third season). The History Channel has Vikings (unseen but on the to-watch list).

With so much television out right now, it’s difficult to really catch up on golden oldies and prior seasons of current hits. OITNB is just one of those shows I put on the back burner to spend time on other projects. I may pick it up.

PrintHowever, disappointment abounds that the third season of Penny Dreadful is the final of the series. I didn’t see this coming at all, but my understanding is that this was premeditated long ago.  I’ve yet to begin watching it, although anyone who is familiar with my blog knows how much I’ve gushed over seasons one and two.

I intend to start Penny Dreadful shortly, but have been catching Game of Thrones first whenever possible. It’s not that I value the latter series any higher but simply because thoughtless fools on social media continue to ruin it, spoiling events if I don’t rush to see it. This has happened twice this year alone due primarily to memes. I am truly looking forward to the finale however, considering how awesome the last (ninth) episode turned out.

A couple of years ago, the last thing I expected was to be pulled back into anime ever again. But here I am, working my way through both the new and old; the third season of the classic Armored Trooper Votoms and Netflix’s latest, Voltron: Legendary Defender, of which I’ve seen the 69-minute initial episode (I will be watching the remaining, 23-minute episodes later). The short lengths of both series’ episodes, and the fact that they’re all immediately available, is a factor in my watching them.

I can’t really explain what it is that keeps me hooked on Votoms. At first glance, one would think it’s a show about mecha– large, combative robots often in a war-drama that justifies their usage. Mecha shows are often characterized by the “tech creep” of an arms race through improvements or new models, and a “boxing title bout” mentality between pilots. But Votoms bucks these trends hard.

After the signing of a cease-fire, war veteran Chirico Cuvie is tricked into a mission against his own side. Unable to trust anyone and now a fugitive, Chirico makes reluctant friends with a group of smugglers and lovable low-lives while trying to stay under the radar of a corrupt police force. But Chirico’s quest for survival transformers into a hunt for the truth, which threatens to reignite the fighting all over again.

AT VotomsGritty is the best way to describe the series. Jaded Chirico Cuvie barely forms attachments to anyone or anything, as he burns through ATs (Armored Troopers) like popcorn. They’re merely tools, to be used and discarded when no longer useful. They don’t upgrade as much as they adapt; swapping out weapons and parts to adjust for battles in space or underwater. Repairs and replacements are fairly grunt work and commonplace.

Voltron is the exact opposite in every way. While Votoms is gritty, cynical and hard science fiction, Netflix’s new series is more mythical, hopeful and exponentially more humorous. The disposable nature of the ATs gives way for the unique and important lions. The always-on-the-run survival exchanged for a defensive campaign. And yes, Votoms is for adults while Voltron makes itself appropriate for the whole family.

Cheekiness is Voltron’s best element, with plucky characters who can’t stop poking each other in the ribs. But peppered between the jibes comes a moderate amount of personal drama to punch up the plot lines; Pidge seeks his missing family while Shiro (a rechristened Sven from the original series) can’t remember his life while he was a prisoner of the Galran Empire. Elements like these are ideal for preventing the gladiator match episodes that the first series became known for.

But two weaknesses dog the new series. First, the humor can sometimes be ill-placed and over the top. And second, the pacing was fairly rapid in the rush to establish the universe, such as how everyone shares the same language or why the main characters could be trusted with a considerable amount of power.

Here’s hoping the Game of Thrones finale is one to remember this Sunday.